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Storming Hell

Written by John Lambshead
Illustrated by Bob Greyvenstein



The sun rose slowly on another long day. Crystal showers of frozen air fell gently, sublimed upwards under the sun's rays, only to refreeze and fall again. Fine snow littered the surface like baking sugar, lending the splintered landscape a surreal beauty. This was a place of dialectical extremes, of hot and cold, of light and dark and of stone and dust.

The only splash of colour came from Sarah's multiple reflections in the viewing port. Convention decreed that her long dress and tailored jacket be Royal Navy blue, her blouse cream, but she was allowed to express some individuality in a neck tie and the band around her straw hat. She elected to wear a defiant red.

Sarah was too keyed up to enjoy the bleak landscape. She gazed out of the porthole, lost in her thoughts, disinterested in the view.

"Ma'am?" a piping voice sounded behind her.

She turned, moving carefully so that her skirt would not fly up.

A boy in a midshipman's uniform half made a salute then thought better of it.

"Is that your sea trunk, ma'am?"

She nodded in assent and he clicked his fingers at the porters. Two Selenites scuttled forward, sharp claws tapping on the stone floor. Like all lunar natives, they were six limbed but their exoskeleton was without the tripartite division that characterised the insect body. The size of a large dog, they stood mostly on four legs so that their front claws could be used as hands. The Queen Below bred them for Port Bedford's use as part of the Co-operation Pact with the British Empire. A not unpleasant wet-straw smell drifted off the creatures as they grappled with her luggage.

"The captain presents his compliments, ma'am, and asks you to accompany me to the ship."

"Thank you," she said. "Lead on."

They made a strange crocodile through the narrow corridors, the midshipman in front, her behind, and the Selenites bringing up the rear. Convention decreed that they should walk in single file on the right. This necessitated one of the Selenites walking backwards, something that seemed to discommode him not at all. She thought of the Selenite as "him," though "it" was probably a more accurate pronoun for a sterile worker.

Sarah stepped over the lip of a double-doored hatchway into the aethership, revealing far too much ankle for her liking. The porters banged her trunk against the hatchway. She admonished them and they listened politely, clacking lateral mouth mandibles in reply before forcing her trunk through the narrow opening. The midshipman walked on without pausing, causing her to half run to catch up. It was so undignified; her instructors had impressed upon her the importance of comportment for a lady but what was one to do?

The air inside the aethership held a sharp tang of carbolic soap, like a newly scrubbed hospital. The ship had recently been refurbished so it did not yet smell of stale sweat seasoned with the aroma of ripe latrine but, given time, it would. Port Bedford's air was clean and natural in comparison, if a trifle musty, refreshed as it was from fungal forests Below.

She was soon completely disorientated in the maze of cramped passageways and staircases. Sailors hurrying about their duties gave way when her party needed to pass. She ignored their interested glances. A final spiral staircase gave access to the bridge. The mid stopped in front of a man wearing a captain's uniform and smartly snapped to attention, saluting.

The captain, who was deep in discussion with one of his lieutenants, ignored them. She took the opportunity to study the man who would be in control of her life for the foreseeable future. He was about thirty-five, tall, slim and fair haired—a typical member of the Anglo-Norman ruling families. She resigned herself to being patronised when he finally acknowledged her existence

"My dear Miss Brown, welcome aboard Her Majesty's Aethership Cassandra." He pumped her hand vigorously and grinned. "I trust that they made you comfortable at Port Bedford while you waited for us. I am afraid we had a little trouble with our cavorite panels, which delayed our departure."

"Thank you, yes, I was quite comfortable," she said.

"Either I am getting older, or the pilots are getting younger and prettier," said the captain to the officer beside him.

She blushed: the interview was not going precisely to her expectations.

"This is my first independent posting but I assure you that I am properly qualified, Captain Fitzwilliam," she said. She tried to sound brisk and efficient but it came out as pompous.

"I never doubted it, dear lady," he said.

He cocked his head to one side and looked expectantly at her.

For a second Sarah's mind blanked and then she realised that she had unaccountably forgotten to carry out her first duty. Fumbling in her bag, she finally managed to remove the two critical pieces of paper. Why did everything take twice as long when one was flustered?

"My posting and pilot's certificate, sir," she said, handing them to him.

He cast a quick eye over them as convention decreed before handing the certificate back.

"Show the lady to her room, Mister Chomondely," he said to the midshipman.

"Aye, aye, sir."

She made to go but the captain stopped her with a raised finger.

"I hope to have the pleasure of your company at dinner tonight, Miss Brown, but in the meantime, stow your gear quickly and strap yourself in, as we shall be lifting shortly." He glared at the other officers as if defying them to contradict him.

The midshipman showed her aft to a small cabin, taking his leave of her without entering. The click-clack of Selenite claws disappeared down the corridor as she shut and locked the door. Pilots had a special status on Queen Mary's ships because the Royal Navy still struggled with the concept of a lady in the crew. Ruling Queens were a long accepted tradition in Britain, ever since Queen Boudicea told her groom to sharpen the scythe blades on her chariot wheels while she looked up London on the map, but ladies on a Royal Navy bridge were anathema.

The Senior Service had settled for a typical British compromise. She was classed as an officer and so bunked aft and ate in the wardroom. However, it was strictly understood that she most assuredly had no place in the chain of command. One of her instructors had compared the position of Royal Navy pilots with that of the army's regimental mascots—and not to the detriment of the latter.

Stowing her luggage took little time as there was very little storage space to put anything in. She left most of her possessions in her trunk, which she pushed with some difficulty under the bunk. Then she arranged herself on the narrow bed and fastened herself down with the safety webbing. She stared blankly at the featureless grey walls, trying to control her breathing. Terrors nibbled at the edges of her mind like hyenas around a wounded beast but she was determined not to give way to hysteria. She inhaled and held her breath for a count of two, then again to a count of three and so on. Slowly, she brought her rebellious body under control.

Sarah balanced a watercolour miniature on her stomach that depicted the likeness of a cavalier sitting upon a rearing horse. He waved his hat high over his head with one hand while the other pointed a pistol at a coach. A speech-bubble depicted him saying "Stand and deliver all enemies of the crown."

She composed herself and prayed, slipping gently into a trance, but she was nervous and could not quite achieve enthesis. When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but featureless light grey haze, like sunlit fog.

"Captain, Captain, are you there?" she asked.

White rings formed cloud-like shapes, sharply defined on the outside edge but fading into mist in the centre. They developed, imploded, and were replaced in a repetitive moving pattern. She prayed harder and for a moment thought she saw the shadow of a figure but it drifted away when she reached out. Her stomach lurched and she disconnected, suddenly back in her cabin. She was upside hanging by the webbing, which alternatively pulled and relaxed at her body as she became lighter and heavier. The three coloured galvanic warning lights over the cabin door shone steadily; the ship was lifting from the lunar surface.

Her stomach lurched again as she first became weightless and then fell back into her bunk as down reasserted itself. Obviously the engineering problems had not been entirely addressed. She grabbed the bowl that a steward had thoughtfully clipped to her cabin wall and was violently and horribly sick.

* * *

She was a fashionable five minutes late, as befitted a lady. The gentlemen failed to stand when she entered the captain's cabin. Naval surgeons had become exasperated at patching up young officers injured while making ever more gallant gestures of respect to the ship's pilot, so the usual niceties were ignored.

"Sit opposite me, Miss Brown," said the captain, gesturing to an empty place at the table. "May I introduce my first lieutenant, Mister Brierly, my engineering officer, Mister Fadden, and Lieutenants Crowly and Smythe. Major Riley here is the commander of our marine contingent." He gestured at an officer dressed in red rather than the otherwise ubiquitous navy blue.

She exchanged polite greetings with the men. Brierly was a good ten years older than his captain and his accent suggested a modest north country background. He must be competent to rise to first lieutenant, but not quite good enough to be posted captain without patronage.

Fadden was a cheerful, round faced character whose figure suggested that he was an accomplished trencherman. Engineering officers, like pilots, were a relatively new innovation in the Royal Navy. The complexity of operating aetherships demanded specialist skills, something only reluctantly conceded by the traditionalists who tended to regard any change as a source of potential ruin to the service.

One of the young lieutenants sprang up to seat her, his breeding as a gentleman momentarily overcoming official regulations. She was not sure which lieutenant was which, so she murmured vague thanks.

"May I congratulate you on your splendid gown, Miss Brown? It brings a welcome splash of colour to our grey existence," said the captain.

"Yes, top hole," said a lieutenant, eying her enthusiastically. She thought it was the one called Smythe.

His captain quelled the young officer with a glance.

Actually, she was pleased that they had noticed how much effort she had expended in dressing for dinner. She had always considered that the maroon evening dress showed her modest figure off to best effect.

Now that the party was complete the steward served soup. She looked down at the complex array of cutlery and glasses in front of her and felt the familiar surge of panic. A woman in a Royal Navy wardroom had to look, behave and think like a lady—had to be a lady. She had been extensively trained at the Academy to play the role but deep down she feared that one day someone would point the finger and publicly denounce her as a fraud.

Inside, she was still the same fourteen-year-old daughter of a Bermondsey costermonger that she had been before the Spiritualist Church had selected her in the annual sweep. The sneers and gibes of the better-bred girls in the dormitory had cut deep and left permanent scars. She had been plucked out of one world and dropped into another, gilded like a fake antique in an auction. The most frightening thing of all was that she couldn't go back to her old life if she failed in the new one. She now lacked the social and practical skills to survive in Bermondsey. Sarah was not even her real name. Her parents had christened her Daisy but ladies did not have flower-names. The better London houses were full of maids with names like Daisy, Rose, or Violet "below stairs" but such names were never found "above."

It took a moment to register that Captain Fitzwilliam was speaking.

"I was not sure that you would be joining us, Miss Brown. I was concerned that you might be indisposed." He grinned at her slyly.

He knew she had been sick! How had he known? She glared at the steward who avoided making eye contact. The little rat had dobbed her in to the captain. She was so angry that she forgot her anxieties, which on reflection might have been Fitzwilliam's intention all along. This one would merit watching carefully, as he might be a lot more subtle than he looked.

"Not at all, Captain," she said with a smile. "I have been looking forward to dinner."

"I'm impressed by your fortitude," said Fitzwilliam. "Personally, I found getting underway so disturbing that I nearly lost my lunch. I haven't experienced rolls like that since I rounded Cape Horn as a midshipman."

The engineer adopted a defensive expression and talked for some time on the difficulties involved in balancing galvanic flow through the various cavorite panels that repelled the moon. Sarah knew the basic theory, of course, the polarity of cavorite could be excited using galvanism, but she was uninterested in the practical details. The Navy called the composite ceramic-metal alloy "cavorite" in honour of the inventor of the first aethership. Cavorite was also used to maintain normal body weight in the ship once it was clear of the pull of a heavenly body. This was essential as early explorations had revealed that people weakened quickly when weightless.

Sarah let the conversation drift over her and gave the excellent dinner her full attention. She had gone hungry far too often as a child, so the habit of wolfing down food when it was available was hard to eradicate. She forced herself to toy fashionably with a potato, as befitted a lady. A word caught her attention.

"Let's hope we achieve metastasis more smoothly," said Fitzwilliam.

"I've never experienced metastasis," said Lieutenant Crowly, or maybe it was Smythe. "What's it like?"

The first lieutenant, Brierly, crooked a forefinger at the young man, summoning him closer. "You want to know what metastasis feels like. Well, I'll tell you. It's as if someone forces his fist down your throat and pulls you inside out."

Brierly snapped his hand at the young man's face, causing him to recoil back in his seat so hard that he almost went over backwards. The older officers laughed at the younger man's discomfort.

"Fortunately, the whole thing is over quickly," said Fadden.

"As short-lived as a young man's stamina," said Major Riley, eliciting another round of guffaws.

"Gentlemen, lady present," murmured Fitzwilliam. "Is metastasis equally fast and unpleasant for you, Miss Brown?"

"Pilots are rather busy at the time, finding our way and so on," she replied, vaguely.

The Pilot's Academy had firm views on what knowledge was suitable for general circulation and what was best restricted.

"But of course you have your spirit guide to help you," Fitzwilliam said.

"Can you pilot without a spirit?" asked Brierly.

"In theory," she replied. "But it is easier and safer if the pilot is in enthesis with a guide."

"And who is your guide?" asked Fitzwilliam.

"Captain James Hind, the highwayman and cavalier who was hanged for high treason in 1652. It is said he tried to assassinate Cromwell himself on the London road from Huntingdon. The Lord Protector had seven guards and Hind but one accomplice so the attempt failed. Captain Hind barely escaped; his friend was taken and executed on the spot."

"Indeed!" Fitzwilliam raised an eyebrow. "Then we must drink a toast to the good Captain Hind, gentlemen, as we shall be entrusting ourselves to his care shortly."

The men raised their glasses and gave a ragged chorus of "Captain Hind." She raised her glass to her lips with them but did not drink. She had learnt to pace herself very carefully with alcohol. The temptation to drown her social anxieties in the comfort blanket of intoxication was too strong.

"Do you think that the spirit guides really are the souls of dead people, Miss Brown or something inhuman?" asked Lieutenant Crowly.

"The Spiritualist Church is certainly of the view that they are human. They believe that the soul passes through layers of heavenly spheres as it gains enlightenment, until it is holy enough to come back and guide the living," she replied.

"I have often wondered why spirit guides devote so much time to our needs," said Fitzwilliam. "What's in it for them?"

This was delicate and she felt the glow of a blush heating her cheeks. The captain's smile broadened. Bastard!

"Perhaps the Church is right and they help us because they are enlightened," she said, trotting out the official explanation.

"Ah, altruism, that explains it," said Fitzwilliam, with a cynical smile. "Nevertheless, it is interesting that pilots are drawn mostly from the ranks of young women."

"That can partly be explained by tradition," said Fadden, interrupting. "Von Reichenbach recruited girls from the poorer social classes to act as sensitives for his experiments into life energy and how to channel it for psychokinesis. I suspect that initially, this was simply because they were cheaply hired and young women are malleable and suggestive."

"I have never found young women to be particularly malleable or suggestive," said Fitzwilliam, smiling at her.

She suspected that his boyish smile had made many young women very malleable to his suggestions indeed, perhaps too much so for their own good.

The engineer ploughed on pedantically, as if his captain had not spoken.

"Of course, as the creators of new life, young women are particularly strong in universal life energy, what Von Reichenbach termed Odic Force."

"The kirks in Scotland think that spirit guides are daemons from Hell," said Crowly, stubbornly returning to his point.

"Oh, the Wee Free kirks. What would we do without them?" asked Fadden, sarcastically.

"Do you think you consort with daemons, Miss Brown? Are you dealing with Heaven or Hell?" asked Fitzwilliam.

"The Spiritualist Church would deny the existence of either," Sarah replied.

"Have you ever tried to check the veracity of your Captain Hind?" Fitzwilliam asked.

"There definitely was a real person called James Hind," said Sarah. "Sometimes what he tells me about his past agrees with the records and sometimes it is contradicted."

She shrugged.

"That could simply mean that the records are wrong." Fitzwilliam laughed. "Who is naïve enough to believe official documents?"

"Sometimes the contradictions are of a particular nature," said Sarah.

"Such as?" Fitzwilliam asked. He sounded genuinely interested.

"Well, for example, my Captain Hind says that he was the son of a gentleman but the parish register records his father as a butcher."

"Well, he wouldn't be the first man to embellish the truth to a pretty girl," said Fitzwilliam, with a smirk.

"According to last month's Times, the Wee Free want the Spiritualist Church banned throughout the Empire and the Royal Naval Pilot's Academy closed." Crowly would not be deflected.

"That's ridiculous. We would have problems reaching even Venus and Mars without pilots," said Fitzwilliam.

"Many books of the Bible warn against spiritualism, especially Leviticus," Crowly said.

"Oh, Leviticus," said Fitzwilliam, sniffing. "If we took Leviticus literally, we would have to stone half the aristocracy."

"This is all superstitious twaddle," said Fadden. "There is a simple scientific explanation for metastasis. We flood the ship with Noetic radiation, which a pilot controls using her Odic Force and, hence, achieves psychokinesis."

"But what about spirit guides and the visions experienced by pilots?" asked Crowly.

"If you are surprised that young women have hysterical visions when under stress then you know nothing about the fairer sex, my boy," Fadden said. "The sooner science discovers how to control Noetic energies with machines then the sooner delightful young ladies, like Miss Brown here, can go back to fulfilling God's plan for them by marrying and having babies."

Fitzwilliam winked at Sarah. She could not decide which of the two men most deserved a slap.

* * *

Sarah adjusted the pilot's leather seat on the bridge into a semi-reclining position that supported her body comfortably from head to toe and fiddled with the straps that held her down.

"When you are ready, Miss Brown," said Fitzwilliam, clearly becoming impatient.

Sarah ignored him and gave everything one last check. Let the so-in-so wait—his mother had to. She also tried to ignore the revolver that she knew Brierly concealed behind his back. It was his duty to kill her if something went badly wrong. She closed her eyes.

"Captain Hind, are you there?" she asked.

Nothing happened so she repeated the phrase. A cold draught brushed her face. When she opened her eyes, Hind stood in front of her dressed in riding boots and a profusion of blue and red silk. He swept a feathered hat from his head and bowed in a single fluid motion. One of the petty officers on the bridge watched her, looking right through Hind. It had initially puzzled her that no one else could see her spirit guide. Now she just accepted the phenomenon. He appeared entirely corporal to her, not like a ghost at all.

"My dear Miss Brown, what a pleasure to be with you again," Hind said.

She knew that everyone else on the bridge would hear his words come out of her mouth, albeit in a masculine voice, but to her it seemed that Hind himself spoke.

Fadden signalled to a petty officer who pushed a long lever over with both hands. The engineer peered at a gauge. "Noetic radiation levels building up nicely."

Fitzwilliam gestured to her. "Very well, Pilot, you may . . ."

"I need your help, Captain," she prayed.

"Of course my dear," Hind said, holding out his hand.

She reached upward, touching him and the world froze. She could see Fadden and Captain Fitzwilliam rigidly fixed in position and she knew that, if she turned around, she would find her body still reclining on the chair. She kept her eyes resolutely fixed on Captain Hind. Seeing yourself from outside was too much like dying.

She hung in cloud formations which dissolved in a haze of golden bubbles. They hosed up from somewhere below her, jostling and bursting on her. Little galvanic charges flashed from imploding bubbles, tickling where they encountered bare skin. She felt relaxed and contented, the anxieties that characterised her normal state draining from her. She could have stayed there forever, in blissful surrender, until the quiet peace of non-existence took her soul.

Mediums had been known to fall into comas. Some came round but many just slipped away into death.

A callused male hand slipped into hers and pulled gently. The spell broke and she dropped.

* * *

It was early morning on the moors so there was still a chill in the air despite the season. She stood in a valley carved out by a small stream that tumbled cheerfully down though the boulders and rocks strewn across the ground. Downstream, the valley opened into hedged fields and scattered clumps of trees. Smoke curled from a village sited where the stream combined with a larger cousin to form a modest river. Upstream, the valley narrowed as it climbed up to the moor.

"Come sit with me for a while, lass," said Hind, who was perched on a protruding wedge of granite.

Sarah wore a flouncy dress that parodied the costume of a seventeenth century barmaid—a dress that was too tight and far, far too low cut at the front. She concentrated hard, saying the prayer of metamorphosis, and her clothes became a more modest lady's split-skirt riding costume.

Hind grimaced. "I take it that you are in a hurry to start our journey. I was hoping . . ."

"It is my first independent posting," Sarah said, interrupting. "I can't concentrate on anything else until metastasis is complete."

"Very well, lass, but you have been neglecting me," said Hind, glumly, rising easily to his feet and brushing down his breeches.

Hind was always most particular about his appearance.

"Yes, that's true," she said. "When this is out of the way, we will take a holiday together."

"I know just the place," Hind said, noticeably cheering up.

He walked to his black stallion which grazed on some tough-looking grass nearby. She had not noticed the horse before but things did tend to arrive and disappear rather unexpectedly in the spirit world. Hind lifted his horse's reins off the ground and hauled himself into the dual saddle. He reached down and pulled Sarah effortlessly up into the rear seat.

Hind clicked his tongue and the horse moved off, following an unmetalled road that wound along by the stream. As they climbed into the wilderness, the road became narrower and more uneven. He put his hand on her knee and Sarah slapped it off. Her mind returned to the dinner table conversation. Did she think that Hind was truly the spirit of a man or some sort of daemon? Sometimes, it was difficult to tell the difference. He was certainly male, whatever else he was.

Sarah perceived the spirit world as English countryside, particularly the high moors. Every pilot experienced something different: a mighty city, jungles, deserts, treasure islands or even more exotic locations.

Routes in the spirit world were created by the passage of travellers, who were not necessarily human. The better the road, the more travelled the route. After some miles, they rode on an ancient highway surfaced with cracked and weathered cobblestones. It crumbled away at the edge and disappeared in places, vegetation intruding everywhere.

"This was once an important road," said Sarah. "But it looks as if it has been barely used for centuries. Who built it?"

"No idea, it must have been long before my time," said Hind.

A horseman appeared riding towards them with the unexpected suddenness that she associated with the spirit world. Hind cursed and pulled his horse off the road. As the stranger approached, she could see that he had the appearance of an ancient soldier. A highly polished bronze helmet and breastplate protected his head and chest, and a blood red cloak fell around his shoulders.

Hind's stallion whinnied and shuffled its feet so he hushed it, patting the animal on the nose.

"Who is that?" Sarah asked.

"Quiet girl, best not to speak of him—in fact, best not to even look at him."

Sarah lowered her eyes, obediently, but she could not resist a quick glance as the soldier passed. He seemed to feel Sarah's eyes and slowly turned his head to look at her. There was no face under the helmet, just a black void. A great cold penetrated her bones and emptiness sucked at her mind. She couldn't look away.

Hind grabbed the back of her head, forcing it down until she lost eye contact. The freezing cold disappeared, leaving her numb and tingling. Hind kept his hand warningly on the back of her head but she had learnt her lesson and kept her eyes firmly shut until the tap of horse's hooves faded into the distance.

"What was that thing?" she asked.

"Nothing that concerns us," Hind replied. "I thought I told you to look away."

He sighed. "I should have known that a maid's curiosity is stronger than her sense. Next time, I'll cover your eyes myself."

"Next time, I'll take your advice," Sarah promised.

"No, you won't," Hind said, grinning.

He patted her thigh; this time she didn't object.

He guided the stallion off the road onto a path that was little more than an animal track. The ground became progressively waterlogged, small puddles of surface water giving way to pools. Bubbles intermittently rose to the surface and she smelt foetid marsh gas. The horse mistepped and one of its front legs sank into an innocuous-looking pool right up to the knee. The animal scrambled back onto firm ground dragging its leg from the black goo with a sucking noise. A sickly organic smell like rotting flesh filled the air and tiny flying things burst out of the mud before the hole filled with water.

"Shhh, shhh," said Hind, patting the animal's neck to calm it.

Sarah tied a scarf around her mouth and nose to keep the buzzing "flies" out.

A great lake stretched before them. Hind guided the horse along its shoreline without comment. Sarah amused herself by watching light play on the water ripples.

A small head on a long neck popped out of the lake near the shore, just behind them. It had a single eye, a cheerful grin, and a bright yellow tuft of hair on top. A second and then a third popped up. Soon there were dozens all swaying hypnotically in patterns that rippled through the herd. They followed the travellers, sometimes submerging and resurfacing.

Sarah spotted the shadow of a large dark shape beneath the surface as if something was stalking the herd but it made no aggressive move. The snakes gradually caught up with the travellers, bobbing and weaving the whole time.

"Look at those water snakes! Aren't they just delightful?" Sarah said, pulling on Hind's arm.

Hind stiffened, glanced over his shoulder, and reacted instantly, pulling the wide-muzzled highwayman's blunderbuss from its leather scabbard.

The lake exploded; Sarah had an impression of stout leg-like flippers and a mouth the size of a cave entrance. Hind steadied the gun against his waist and discharged it with a loud crack. Billowing white smoke rolled across the water hiding the monster from view.

There was a scream like the hiss of a giant kettle-whistle and a mighty splash. When the smoke cleared, the lake was quiet again but dirty brown streaks of colour drifted up from below and spread out across the surface.

"What happened to the quaint little snakes?" said Sarah. Somehow, their fate seemed to matter to her.

"There were no quaint little snakes," said Hind. "They were lures on the beast's head to tempt the lack-witted close to the water."

"I don't think you should call yourself lack-witted," said Sarah, sympathetically. "You couldn't have known the monster was there."

"I meant you!" Hind said, indignantly.

"Look at the water snakes! Aren't they just delightful?" He mimicked her voice in a mocking way that was most ungentlemanly. "I suppose you would have wanted to pat them if I hadn't intervened."

Hind recharged his blunderbuss as they rode, the wide muzzle allowing him to pour powder down the barrel despite the motion.

They left the marsh and entered grasslands with little copses of trees. The terrain was gentler now, somehow more civilised. Small furry animals grazed among low bushes, shooting down burrows if Hind's horse came too close.

"Please don't try to stroke the cute little bunnies," said Hind. "They have a nasty, diseased bite."

Sarah stuck her nose in the air, treating that remark with the disdain it merited.

"How far now to New Isle of Wight?" she asked.

Hind pointed. "There it is, down in that bowl."

Sarah peered where he indicated. What she had thought was a fallen tree on closer inspection turned out to be a tumble-down rustic shepherd's hut, although she could see no sheep.

"Are you sure?" she asked, uncertainly.

"You were expecting St Paul's?" replied Hind.

"I will disconnect here, out of range of any sensitives in the colony," Sarah said. "Captain Fitzwilliam wants to arrive unannounced and has given me strict instructions."

Hind swung a leg over the horse's head and dismounted in one smooth athletic movement. He handed Sarah down, only releasing her waist reluctantly. She moved away, enthasising, reaching out with her mind to locate her position in the living world. She picked up an emotion from Hind that made her look back.

Many of the girls from the Academy saw their interaction with the spirit guides as essentially a business relationship. Sarah had been particularly horrified by one aristocratic girl.

"It's like marriage, my dear, but more convenient. You do your duty to Queen and country on your back but at least you are spared the tedium of producing the heir and spare."

Sarah, the respectable Bermondsey Street girl, had been shocked.

Hind looked so lost and lonely that she impulsively ran back and kissed him on the lips.

"I will remember my promise," she said.

He grinned at her, clearly pleased, and patted her bottom as she walked away. The man was incorrigible. After ten or twelve steps, Sarah checked her position, enthasising the hut for location. The living world flowed around her like an echo from a dream.

She dithered, wondering whether perhaps she should move a few steps further in, or perhaps to the left?

This is ridiculous, she thought. Just get it over with, girl.

Sarah closed her eyes and recited the prayer taught to her at the Naval Academy. She "pushed" with her mind, imagining a pair of scissors cutting a ribbon, and felt a tug at her body, gentle at first but fast becoming agonising. Disconnection hit her like a tidal wave.

* * *

". . . proceed," said Fitzwilliam.

Sarah gasped and flopped back in the chair, shaking with fatigue. The bridge was filled with swirling grey energy. Someone retched with a particularly unpleasant gargle.

The grey cleared and Sarah saw stars through the portholes, foreign stars arranged in novel patterns. Brick-red light filled the bridge from a foreign sun.

Mr. Brierly ran up a staircase to a glass doom at the rear of the bridge and took sightings with his sextant, measuring the angles between various astronomical features with great care. Sarah lay back exhausted, a tight knot of anxiety forming in her stomach. Had she brought them anywhere near the right location or was she about to suffer more humiliation?

Brierly took his time, double checking the sightings and jotting the results down carefully in a leather-bound notebook. He consulted a navigational almanac, comparing the tables of figures with those he had measured.

His slow deliberation did nothing for Sarah's peace of mind. Why was he frowning and rechecking? What had gone wrong?

At last Brierly was ready to announce the results of his observations.

"Captain, we are in the vicinity of New Isle of Wight on the blind side of Lucifer. We're within a few hundred miles of where you wanted us."

The seamen on the bridge cheered.

"Silence!" A petty officer killed the spontaneous demonstration with a single word.

Fitzwilliam whistled. Arrival within two or three thousand miles of a far colony was considered proficient. Sometimes, an aethership had to use metastasis two or even three times to reach a suitable sailing point for the final journey in.

"Very well done, Pilot," Fitzwilliam said. "I fancy we can sail the rest of the way."

Sarah was absolutely horrified. Now they would expect miraculous piloting skills from her every time. All her anxieties flooded back like a tidal bore. She cursed the ill luck that had caused this.

"Carry on, Mr. Brierly," said Fitzwilliam. "Mr. Smythe—please get a seaman to clean up that awful mess you have made on my bridge deck."

The young lieutenant was a nasty greenish-yellow colour.

"Aye, aye, sir," Smythe said, disappearing.

"All topmen on deck," Brierly yelled into a speaking tube.

Sarah heard the tramp of heavy boots clanging. Sound travelled easily through the steel-built vessel. The bridge was within an armoured tower on the back of the top deck. Sarah had a good view down the starboard side of the ship from the pilot's chair.

Seamen in aethersuits emerged from hatches onto the deck and climbed the thick steel masts. Within minutes, sails unfurled and filled, picking up the solar winds.

"Sailing skills had almost died out in the Navy when the first aetherships were launched," Fitzwilliam said from beside her chair. "We had to recruit old salts from merchant tramp ships to teach the new generation of topmen. That's why we all start our careers on saltwater sailing ships. Do you know how the ship navigates?"

"They teach us the basics," Sarah replied, shrugging. "The solar wind in the sails pushes against a keel of aetherium that runs down the centre of the ship. The resulting parallelogram of forces squeezes the ship in the desired direction."

"Very good," said Fitzwilliam, patronisingly, as if talking to a precocious child at a party.

Sarah glared at him. The man must think she was an idiot.

Fitzwilliam carried on as if she had not spoken. "Now we are under way, we will be turning onto a port tack. Lucifer will come into view to starboard."

Sarah peered out of the porthole, irritation forgotten. A huge red-brown ball slid out from under the bow. Yellow and orange bands streaked its surface, colouring great frozen whirlpools, each of which must be bigger than the Earth.

"New Isle of Wight is one of Lucifer's moons," Fitzwilliam said. "Tidal forces heat the world otherwise it would be colder than Mars. The sun here may be large but its fires are weak with age."

"Why is it called Lucifer?" Sarah asked. "It doesn't look especially hellish."

"I wondered that as well," Fitzwilliam replied. "Perhaps the dull red sun inspired the name, or maybe it's because Lucifer has unusually bad tidal disruptions in the aether, which is why the colony is called New Isle of Wight."

He smiled at her blank expression. "The Isle of Wight off southern England has four tides a day and is surrounded by vicious rip currents. Drake's men used them to lure the Armada to destruction in Southampton waters."

"I have never stood on the soil of a far world," Sarah said, changing the subject as she knew little history. Academy training had been thorough but narrow in scope and she lacked the liberal school education of a real lady.

"And you won't on this cruise, either," said Fitzwilliam. "We are not going anywhere near the colony. Merchant ships are disappearing on the New Isle of Wight run. Ships do disappear but the Admiralty suspect that there's a pirate operating in this area. The City is berating the politicians over their losses and the politicians are leaning on the Navy. Not that they will vote us any more money, of course. My orders are to stop the attacks permanently and we won't do that by advertising our presence; pounds to peanuts the pirate has informers in the colony giving information about shipping. We want to catch the villains, not just scare them somewhere else."

Sarah was disappointed that they would not be docking at New Isle of Wight but she was cheered up by the news that the Cassandra would be chasing pirates. The Admiralty never told pilots why they were going somewhere, they only released destinations to pilots because they had no choice, but pirate hunting sounded exciting.

* * *

Sarah was so bored that she had taken to reading Admiralty regulations to while away the time. She was currently memorising the range of buoy coloured bands used to indicate right of way exceptions. The only fun to be had was with Hind but there were practical limits to how often she could enthasise with him without exhaustion setting in. There were Admiralty regulations about even this—under enthasis, pilots for the use of, frequency per month.

A light coming on in her cabin indicated another alert; a ship must have been sighted. Regulations demanded that she be on the bridge during an engagement, not that there was much chance of finding anything to engage. For six long weeks, the Cassandra had tacked backwards and forwards across New Isle of Wight's shipping lanes. This was only the third vessel sighted and the other two had been harmless merchantmen.

Sarah took her place on the pilot's couch, ignored by the other crew. Mister Brierly had a long telescope trained through a forward porthole.

"She's a Yankee sloop running straight towards us, nothing suspicious about her at all." Disappointment coloured his voice. "She's carrying a large spread of sail but she probably has degradable luxury foods aboard and her captain wants to get to market before they spoil."

"Very good, Mr. Brierly, bring us about before they spot us, assuming they have any lookouts at all," said Fitzwilliam, who clearly had no great regard for the merchant marine.

"An awful lot of sail," Brierly said, half to himself. He kept his telescope trained on the schooner. "Captain! I think I am looking at two ships, one directly behind the other. I think the Yankee is being chased."

"Thank you, Mister Brierly," said Fitzwilliam, calmly. "Signal action stations, if you please, Mister Crowly."

The ship became a whirl of organised activity. Sarah shrank back on her couch trying to keep out of the way. Her sole duty was to hold herself ready to take the ship into metastasis. She recited the prayer for calmness in her head. She couldn't enthasise with Hind unless she was reposed.

The ships crept together, mile by mile. Sarah had heard it said that a sea fight was like jousting in slow motion but the reality was excruciating. She fidgeted on her seat until she received an irritated glance from Fitzwilliam.

"The chaser is a large warship with the lines of a galleon," Brierly said.

Sarah opened her mouth to ask what a galleon was but thought better of disturbing the officers and left the question unasked.

"That's what we call a Spanish colonial battleship," Smythe said to her in an undertone. He had clearly noted her puzzlement.

"What's a Spaniard doing here chasing a Yankee?" Fitzwilliam asked, rhetorically. "Can you see any colours, Mr. Brierly?"

"Not Spain's," Brierly replied. "There is some sort of odd device on the foresail."

"A mutineer, then," Fitzwilliam said. "Some governor of a Spanish colony has rebelled, or maybe the local militia leader has shot the governor and declared himself generalissimo."

"But why is he chasing a sloop?" Sarah asked, unable to contain herself further.

"Because he needs loot to reward his men; no pay and he will be the next up against the wall," said Fitzwilliam.

"We will engage?" asked Brierly.

"Of course," Fitzwilliam replied.

The captain opened the cover of a speaking tube. He couldn't address the whole crew but his words would be repeated on from man to man through the ship's compartments.

"This is the captain," Fitwillliam said, speaking slowly and clearly, pitching his voice to carry. "A Spanish battleship is attacking a Yankee in one of our colonies. That means that the Americans are under Queen Mary's protection. The Spaniard is three times our size, has four times our men and twice our number of guns but we are the Royal Navy. . . ."

Whatever else Fitzwilliam intended to say was drowned by a cheer coming back up the tube. He gave up and recapped it.

"Don't be frightened, Miss Brown, Captain Fitzwilliam will best them," said Smythe.

"I am not frightened," Sarah said, crisply, rather surprised to find that it was true. All sorts of things scared her—being found out, being laughed at, failing—but dying wasn't one of them. Nevertheless, she knew bollocks when she heard it and Smythe was full of it. She accepted as a matter of course that the Royal Navy was superior to anything else in the aether but, nonetheless, a frigate against a battleship, even a third rate battleship, was hopeless. Even she knew that much about naval tactics.

"Mr. Brierly, if I fall your orders are to smash up the enemy badly enough that he can't escape whomsoever the Admiralty sends to replace us. That warship must not be allowed to get away unscathed."

"Aye, aye, sir." If Brierly was concerned about being ordered to commit suicide then he hid it well.

"Take personal command of the gun deck, Mr. Brierly. I will try to position the ship so you can get both broadsides away. I intend to use our superior speed and manoeuvrability to hit and run."

"Aye, aye, sir." Brierly saluted and left the bridge.

"A point to starboard, helmsman," Fitzwilliam said. "We will pass the sloop close on her port side, provided her master doesn't panic and ram us."

The Cassandra had two helmsmen behind large oak wheels. One operated vertical rudders of aetherium while the other controlled horizontal direction.

Aetherium was the only substance yet known opaque to aether. Before the secret of its manufacture had been learnt from the Martians, aetherships had been spherical capsules covered in cavorite panels that were navigated by pushing and pulling against heavenly bodies. The death rate had been higher than even Germany's submersible steam boats.

The sloop's master showed admirable presence of mind by running straight as the Cassandra swept past. The frigate turned to present its port broadside to the pursuing battleship.

The Spanish ship failed to react for some minutes as if the commander could not quite believe the sudden appearance of the RN frigate and was wondering what to do. Then its bow tilted ever so slowly to port, trying to match the Cassandra's turn to exchange broadsides on a parallel course. The battleship was far too slow and the Cassandra crossed her bow.

"Fire when ready, Mr. Brierly," Fitzwilliam said down a speaking tube.

Brierly discharged the Cassandra's port broadside battery by battery into the Spaniard's bow. The ship whipsawed under their recoil. Sarah had never experienced the detonation of naval artillery pieces. She had expected the noise but the shockwaves set up in the hull surprised her. Dust rose from every surface and everything rattled. A pencil rolled off the navigational table and danced on the floor.

Sarah could see pieces flying off the enemy battleship as the shells struck home.

"Hard to port," Fitzwilliam ordered.

The helmsman spun the wheel and a rating frantically pulled levers that operated the signalling arms on top of the bridge's armoured roof. Topmen in aethersuits winched the sails around to put the ship on a new tack. It was hard gruelling work but the Royal Navy acknowledged few equals at the task.

The second helmsmen hauled on his wheel to counter the roll to starboard generated by Cassandra's abrupt change in course. The Spaniard continued its turn to port so that the ships were momentarily side by side, passing closely on opposite courses. Brierly fired the starboard guns in a single broadside that rolled the Cassandra to port. The recoil on the ship's hull was enough to knock a man off his feet. Sarah fancied she saw the red dots streak away from the ships side. Strikes appeared all over the hull of the battleship.

"Good shooting, Mr. Brierly," Fitzwilliam said, to no one in particular. "She'll be well armoured but that must have hurt."

A handful of ragged flashes on the battleship's upper decks gave notice that she was returning fire. A thump that Sarah felt more than heard indicted that at least one of the enemy's shots had struck home.

"Two broadsides with barely a shot in return," Fadden said, with great satisfaction. "Oh, well played, Captain!"

"The galleon is not well handled," Fitzwilliam said, mildly. "I suspect that she has no officers aboard."

"They probably went for a walk in the aether out of an access hatch if the crew mutinied," said Fadden.

"Without aethersuits?" asked Sarah, shocked.

"Oh, no. They will have been given aethersuits," said Fadden. "To prolong the agony, don't you see?"

Cassandra carried on her tack leaving the enemy to stern. The battleship continued in its turn until it was following the frigate.

"We seem to have gained their attention," said Fitzwilliam. "What is the sloop doing?"

Smythe trained a telescope astern. "She is getting clear of the battle, sir."

"Very wise," Fitzwilliam said. "Now, Pilot, I want you to take us into metastasis and position the Cassandra just behind the battleship. You understand what I require from you, Miss Brown?"

"Yes, Captain," she answered.

Her stomach contracted in a knot; this was exactly what she had feared might happen. Fitzwilliam had acquired an exaggerated idea of her capabilities from the lucky metastasis to Lucifer. Now he was placing the entire safety of his ship in her hands.

Something of what she felt must have shown on her face.

"It won't be easy but I have every confidence in your skills, Pilot," Fitzwilliam said, gently. "You can do it, Sarah."

It occurred to her that if she got it badly wrong and placed them under the battleship's guns then the frigate would be destroyed and all aboard killed—so she wouldn't have to face the consequences. This thought cheered her up. She felt so much better that she indulged herself in feeling indignation at Fitzwilliam's cavalier familiarity with her. She calmed herself and began enthasis, searching for Hind.

Nothing happened.

Alarmed, Sarah searched deeper, trying to reach into the spirit world. She slipped out of her body and hit a shining purple barrier, bouncing back. She tried again with the same result.

"Captain, I can't get us into metastasis. Something is blocking me," she said.

Fitzwilliam looked at her sharply. "Is this some natural phenomenon or a trick of the enemy?"

"I don't know," Sarah replied, nearly in tears. "I have never experienced anything like it. It's as if we are surrounded by a wall."

"That is inconvenient," said Fitzwilliam, with masterly English understatement.

He opened a speaking tube. "Mr. Brierly, there is a change of plan. We will lead the enemy into Lucifer's rip tides."

Fadden interrupted. "That will disrupt our control of the Cassandra's cavorite panels and make it difficult to hold the ship steady. We will have a devil of a job training the guns."

"Quite true, Mister Fadden, but it will be a bloody sight more difficult for the battleship to use her primary weapons," said Fitzwilliam.

"True, Captain, her heavy guns will be muzzle loaders, hauled in on hydraulic rams."

"Badly maintained hydraulic rams," said Fitzwilliam.

"Which will jam solid on a rolling ship," said Fadden.

The two men grinned at each other.

"Of course she still has more light breach loaders than our entire armament," said Fitzwilliam.

"But we are the Royal Navy," Sarah said, quietly.

"Exactly so, Pilot," said Fitzwilliam.

Lucifer hung in front like a bloodshot eye growing ever larger until it filled the heavens. Sarah reconsidered her view that it didn't look hellish. The giant planet's surface looked like boiling multicoloured water that had been frozen in place. She could see where great arches of gas were in the process of ejection. The world was spinning so fast that she could actually detect a slow movement by eye.

Cassandra began to roll and pitch, like a sea-ship in a gale. Sarah tightened the straps on the pilot's couch. Fitzwilliam stood with bent knees, seemingly unconcerned but even he, eventually, had to grasp a rail. The ship shuddered and vibrations passed down the hull.

"Having trouble balancing the cavorite panels again, Mr. Fadden?" Fitzwilliam asked.

"Sorry, sir, I believe I have the measure of it now," replied Fadden, adjusting a bank of circular wooden knobs.

Sarah failed to notice any improvement, indeed the aethership shook all the more, but Fitzwilliam seemed satisfied. He trained a telescope aft, observing their pursuer.

The Cassandra shook again, whipsawing from stem to stern. Sarah saw topmen hanging desperately to the rolling masts. One slipped but his lifeline held and he was reeled in by a petty officer.

"We must turn back soon, sir. The panels won't take much more," said Fadden.

"Just a bit further, Mr. Fadden, you want to see the Spaniard if you think we have it bad," said Fitzwilliam. "They lost a mast in that last wave."

Fadden gave him an agonised look as Cassandra corkscrewed.

"Oh, very well, Mister Fadden," said Fitzwilliam. "Signal the topmen to stand by for a new tack."

The petty officer manning the signal lever sprang to work. The Cassandra turned to starboard, Fitzwilliam skilfully timing the manoeuvre between aether waves.

Once again the battleship was slow to respond and its own turn was hesitant and choppy. The Cassandra managed to deliver a starboard broadside into the port bow of the Spaniard, reverse tack and discharge a port broadside before resuming course. The swirling aether currents made the frigate a poor firing platform so many of the shots missed, even at close range. As Fitzwilliam had predicted, the Spaniard could only reply with light cannon on its upper gun deck. Nevertheless, the Cassandra took some nasty knocks in return.

Fitzwilliam repeated the tactic, using the frigate's greater agility and its sailors' higher skills to score hits and then dance away before the battleship could return effective fire. All the time, he lured the Spaniard deeper into Lucifer's tidal drag.

This was Sarah's first sea fight and she was enthralled. She had been taught basic naval tactics but this was astonishing. The motto of a famous New York prize-fighter went through her mind—float like a butterfly but sting like a wasp. The captain danced the frigate around the less agile battleship, avoiding an exchange of blows that they couldn't win but landing painful jabs all the while. She began to believe that they could win.

Fitzwilliam caught her gazing at him so she wiped the admiration off her face. The man was cocksure enough already without her adding to his ego.

"Any chance of getting us out of here, Pilot?" he asked.

"No, Captain," she replied. "I keep trying but something is still impeding me. In any case, it would be dangerous to go into metastasis this close to Lucifer."

She felt idiotic even as she made the last remark. At the moment, all their options were dangerous.

"Ah well," Fitzwilliam said. "I had hoped that the enemy would have broken contact by now but he seems to be somewhat annoyed at us. We will just have to hope that Lucifer's tidal rips break him first, so that we can extricate ourselves."

"Your strategy does seem to be working," Sarah said, trying to demonstrate a proper naval insouciance in the face of the foe.

It was at that moment that chaos broke out.

A sailor spun away from his station as if he had been punched by a steam hammer. A pipe fractured, spewing hot water into a rating's face; his screams echoed from the metal walls. Navigational maps flew up in the air and the ship's deck lurched, throwing Sarah against her straps. The dial in from of the engineering officer shattered and Fadden uttered a most ungentlemanly oath.

"The galvanic coils," he said, before running down the spiral stair into the bowels of the ship.

Sarah noticed ghostly figures on the edge of her vision that vanished as soon as she looked at them directly, like trying to see a dim star at night. She enthasised and was horrified to see goblin-like forms lurching around the bridges like small boys who had got out of their governess' control. The spirit world was overflowing into the natural realm and something was psychically boarding the Cassandra.

Sarah slipped from her body and was sucked in to the otherworld.

She arrived in a large kitchen that must be part of some great house. The walls were brick, supported by heavy black wooden beams. The kitchen was full of ovens, cupboards, and tables littered with culinary equipment, spoons, ladles, pots, kettles, plates and cutlery. Sarah was dressed in a female version of a highwayman's outfit, with breeches and a thick leather jerkin.

Anthropoid creatures with short legs and overlong arms ran round the kitchen, smashing china and upturning anything loose. As she watched, two overturned a cupboard with a tremendous crash. They also struck out at ghostly servants that were trying to cook. These must be the shadows of the Cassandra's crew into the spirit world. Sarah had never seen such a phenomenon before; non-sensitives usually left no impression here.

The nearest goblin turned to face her, a wide grin showing large upward-facing canines. It wore the tattered remains of clothes that were too small and the wrong shape. No, not clothes, she thought, but a uniform since other goblins showed the same colours. It ran towards her on bowed legs with a rolling gait that covered the ground surprisingly quickly. She pulled a pistol from a sash around her waist and levelled it.

The creature stopped where she could stare into human-looking eyes. Sarah imagined that she could see fear and terror buried deep behind those eyes. She hesitated, unwilling to pull the trigger. She had never shot anything before, let alone something with sad brown eyes.

The goblin hit her hard over the left kidney. Its hand ended in vicious hooked claws that tore through the thick leather, into her body. She screamed and gripped the gun hard in shock, discharging it.

The blast blew a hole the size of her fist in the creature's chest, knocking it over backwards. Sarah doubled up in pain. She pushed her left hand hard against her side but it still hurt terribly. Get a grip, girl, she said to herself and willed the pain to subside. She was not entirely successful but at least she could now function.

Sarah focussed her mind with the chronotic prayer to create an aeon, a bubble of time in which her life ran faster than the spirit world around her. This emergency measure was used only sparingly as it put great strain on the pilot. The world around her slowed down.

The goblins clawed slowly at each other, hindering themselves in their eagerness to get at her. She backed into a corner, firing the pistol as fast as she could reload. Sarah was not exactly a markswoman but she could hardly miss. One shot smashed a goblin's kneecap, another burst a head like a ripe pear hit with a mallet and a third clipped a goblin's shoulder, spinning him around into his fellows.

The blood drove the creatures mad and they tore into their fallen comrades. The goblin with the shattered leg tried to defend itself but another ripped his throat out with an upward slash of the impressive canines. Red blood spurted across the floor causing increasing frenzy. Sarah began to hope that the goblins might kill each other off. She was tired now and finding it hard to concentrate. Half of her mind concentrated on maintaining the aeon through prayer, while the rest went through the ritual of load, aim, fire and back away.

She stumbled over the words of the prayer and the aeon flickered. A ridiculous-looking scrawny man in some sort of native American kilt and head-dress made the horned sign, the mano cornuta, at her. Her aeon collapsed and the world speeded up. The man was an unrestrained sensitive. Pilots called them sorcerers.

One of the unacknowledged reasons that the Navy only used girl mediums was that they were considered to be more controllable. Her instructors had drummed into her the safe limits of her talent beyond which she was forbidden to experiment. To do so would put her very soul into peril and for that there was the threat of the Church exorcists.

The "goblins" were sailors or soldiers, sacrificed in some dreadful ritual that had bound their souls to the sorcerer's service. The Academy could control what the girls did but they couldn't stop them gossiping. Sarah had heard of vile ceremonies that were rumoured to be carried out in the more backward territories.

The sorcerer screamed in anger and hopped from foot to foot, shaking a stick with a feather on the tip at the goblins. He slapped the nearest goblin with the stick and it whimpered as if lashed by a whip.

The magician gestured at Sarah and the goblins obediently charged towards her. She fired once into the crush without result. She felt the creatures' thoughts and their lust for hot, red blood. There was no time left to reload her weapon, no time for anything. In desperation, she cried for help, calling Hind's name.

The kitchen door flew off its hinges into the crush of goblins, knocking several over. This was followed by the sound and smell of a heavy gun firing. A tunnel of body parts showed where Hind had discharged his blunderbuss.

The goblins in front of Sarah hesitated. The sorcerer shouted more instructions. Most of the goblins attacked Hind leaving just two to finish her off, which was probably overkill.

Sara saw Hind drop the blunderbuss and drew a pistol with each hand. She saw him shoot a goblin in the face; it somersaulted onto its back. Then the two goblins were on her. Summoning the last of her strength, she hit one over the head with her gun, felling it. She heard the crash of Hind's pistol discharging and the howl of goblins. She leaned back against the wall, exhausted, the pain in her side flooding over her as her mind failed to maintain the block. Her hand unclenched, dropping her pistol to the floor with a clatter. She was spent with nothing left to give but surely no one could criticise her for that? Hadn't she done enough?

The surviving goblin grabbed her by the shoulders, its claws drawing blood. This one's eyes showed nothing but savage pleasure. If there was anything human left in the goblin then it was the sort of man who took joy in a woman's pain. The goblin lifted her off the ground with its claws, pulling her slowly towards its fangs, savouring her fear like a connoisseur with a fine wine. It smelt of stale sweat and decay.

A steel point erupted from the goblin's throat, spraying Sarah with a fine mist of blood. The creature dropped and fell. Hind pulled his sword free and stamped hard on the goblin's neck. Sarah heard the sharp crack of breaking bones and the goblin went limp. She sank to her knees and closed her eyes, ineffectually putting her hands over her ears trying shut out the terrible sounds. She did not want to see or hear Hind die.

A final scream and then silence caused her to open her eyes. There was only her, Hind and the sorcerer left in the kitchen, just them and a carpet of dead goblins that were already starting to decay. The sorcerer looked to be in shock and Sarah knew how he felt. Hind was covered in blood, some of it his, and his anger was terrible.

The sorcerer made a bolt for the doorway.

"Stop him," Sarah said, weakly.

Hind reversed his grip on the sword and threw it like a javelin. It struck the sorcerer point first in the back, slicing deep into his body. The man fell through the doorway out of her sight, arms splayed out as if he were worshiping a pagan god.

"You stupid, stupid girl," Hind said, angrily. "Whatever made you think you could do this unaided? You could have been killed and I would have lost you forever."

It was not until much later that Sarah pondered over the significance of that remark.

Hind held her tight and kissed her hard on the lips. His grip caused the pain in her side to flare and she gasped.

"You're hurt," Hind said, concern replacing anger in his face. "You need to go back, now."

He looked at her intently, said something that she didn't catch, and the kitchen faded away.

* * *

The bridge was a shambles of broken equipment. Fitzwilliam and Crowly stared at her; there were just the three of them on the bridge, apart from bodies.

"You were screaming, Pilot," said Fitzwilliam in answer to her unasked question. "And stuff was streaming off you."

Ectoplasm leaked from Sarah's side where the goblin had clawed her. The white filmy material dissolved where it trailed into the oily liquids on the deck. The Cassandra corkscrewed in a violent motion that set off a metallic groaning from overstressed steel.

"Give me a few minutes to rest and I will take us through metastasis," Sarah said.

"It's too late for that," said Fitzwilliam. "We are falling towards Lucifer."

"And the battleship?" Sarah asked.

Fitzwilliam looked at her, head tilted to one side. "It exploded just after strange things stopped happening here, just after you stopped screaming. You wouldn't know why that was, would you?"

Sarah considered. The sorcerer was escaping back into the living world when Hind speared him. What would have happened if he had died at the point of disconnection? She thought it best not to speculate as it could be dangerous to reveal too much.

"I've no idea, Captain," she replied, complimenting the lie with her most innocent expression.

"Hmpf," Fitzwilliam exclaimed, clearly unconvinced. "We are abandoning ship, so make your way to the boat deck."

Sarah tried to get up but she was utterly exhausted and every muscle in her torso ached. She sank back with a groan.

"You will have to go without me. I don't think I can walk," she said.

"Don't be ridiculous, Pilot," said Fitzwilliam. "I don't have time for heroic posturing. Mr. Crowly!"


"Escort the pilot to the rear boat deck. Carry her if necessary. I will join you as soon as I have destroyed the signal book in my cabin."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Crowly, saluting.

Captain Fitzwilliam ran down the spiral stairs, taking them two at a time.

Crowly watched him go.

Sarah waited for the lieutenant to help her but she was ignored. Crowly cocked his head, listening to the metallic clang of the captain's footsteps fade.

"Mister Crowly?" she asked politely, holding out her hand so he could assist her up.

His face twisted in hatred. "Witch!" he said, spitting the word out as if it were a venomous bug.

Sarah recoiled in shock.

It took a visible effort for Crowly to regain control of himself.

"'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,' Exodus, twenty-two eighteen," he said more calmly. "Goodbye, Miss Brown."

He turned and strode off the bridge, leaving her alone. The next roll of the ship turned a body over so that it was face up.

"Mister Smythe," she said, softly. "So now you know the answer to the great mystery. Have you a spirit guide, I wonder, or do you dwell with angels? Well, I'll soon join you and find out for myself."

She doubted that the young man had sinned sufficiently to go below but she was not so sure about her own ultimate destination. The ship rolled again and Smythe's head lolled until he stared straight at her with accusing eyes. Coward, Sarah, he seemed to say, taking the easy option again? I fought to the end, his eyes said. I did not just give up.

Sarah heaved herself upright and limped over to the spiral stairs. Her weight kept changing and a sudden tug nearly pitched her down the steps. She clutched the rail for support and fell to her knees.

The lieutenant was looking at her again. "I tried," she told him. "I really did, Mister Smythe, but I can't do it, so do stop reproaching me!"

"Miss Brown, is that you?"

Fitzwilliam came up the stairs, taking them three at a time.

"Where's Crowly? I told him to help you."

"He has firm views on helping witches," said Sarah. "Exodus, you know."

Fitzwilliam swore. "I'll have his commission for this. I'm sorry, Sarah, this is my fault. I knew he was in some humourless sect but it never occurred to me that he would put religion before duty." Fitzwilliam swore again. "That's no excuse, of course."

A grinding shudder went through the hull.

"Perhaps we should go?" Sarah ventured to say.

"What? Yes, of course," Fitzwilliam said.

He put Sarah's arm around his neck and half carried her down the steps. The journey through the ship was nightmarish. It was hardly recognisable as the smart Royal Navy vessel of a few short hours ago. The corridors were erratically lit and sharp edged wreckage lay in wait. Progress was painfully slow and Sarah was tempted to suggest Fitzwilliam go on alone, but she realised that it would be a waste of breath. He really was an insufferably arrogant man but he was also a brave one.

They had only gone about though two hatchways when the ship's hull rang like a steel drum hit by a hammer and there was a terrible tearing sound.

"Wait here," Fitzwilliam said. He ran to the next hatchway and peered through the porthole.

"The ship has broken her back. We cannot reach the aft boat deck so we will have to go back. This section will lose its air next."

Sarah groaned at the thought of reversing their steps but Fitzwilliam was adamant. She just wished the damn man would let her lie down and die in peace.

Fitzwilliam bullied and hauled her back to the deck below the bridge, where there was a small hatchway that Sarah had not noticed before. A yellow bar emphasised the legend "Lifeboat."

Sarah stared at it open-mouthed. "But if this was here, why did we . . ."

Fitzwilliam flung open the hatch.

"Because it is for one person only," he said. "A last chance escape route for the captain."

"That was where you were going when you heard me?" asked Sarah. Then she realised the more relevant part of his comment. "But it's only for one person."

"Always enough space for a little'un," said Fitzwilliam, cheerfully, throwing her headfirst through the hatch.

Sarah found herself in a pitch black tube. Fitzwilliam dropped on top, knocking the breath from her. He had a hard muscular body.

"Sorry," he said, insincerely.

She was about to make some pithy and sarcastic comment to put him in his place when an elbow caught her in the stomach as he twisted around to shut the hatch. By the time she recovered, the devastatingly witty comment had slipped from her mind, which was a shame as she was sure that it had been jolly good and that it would have utterly crushed the insufferable man. Fitzwilliam grunted with effort, a lever moved and an explosive charge shot them away from the doomed ship with a thump.

"You really don't give a lady time to catch her breath," said Sarah.

There was a click and a dim light came on. They were nose to nose.

"Sorry about the accommodation," said Fitzwilliam, while focussing on adjusting some controls behind Sarah's head.

"I must look a frightful mess," she said and could have kicked herself. Why did she have this urge to babble inanities when she was anxious?

"I believe that I may just be able to survive looking at you for a while longer," said Fitzwilliam, with a smile. "I have a robust constitution so I'm willing to take the risk."

Sarah sniffed. He was far too glib for her liking although he did have a nice smile. Sarah looked out of a small porthole by her head. The boat was rotating around its axis every ten seconds or so. Lucifer dominated the heavens filling the boat with red light on every rotation. The remains of the rear hull of the Cassandra passed across the window. A great gout of flame blasted silently out of the wreckage, vanishing quickly as its air supply dissipated into the aether.

"Now we wait for rescue," Fitzwilliam said. "Do you know any good word games?"

"Rescue by whom?" Sarah asked, calmly. "We are going to die in here aren't we?"

He looked at her and she could see that he was considering what to say.

"Yes, I'm afraid that's likely," he eventually replied. "The boat will drop into Lucifer when the galvanic cell fails and the cavorite panels stop working but I fancy that we will be dead by then. The air supply is only intended for one person."

"I see," Sarah said. She was glad that he had enough respect for her intellect not to try to fob her off with a comforting lie.

"Back there in the ship, when everything went to hell. You were fighting some sort of magical battle, I suppose," he said, making the sentence a statement rather than a question.

The expression on her face must have shown her shock, because he hurried to reassure her.

"My father is in the Foreign Office, Miss Brown. I understand more than you might imagine about the duties and proscriptions of your profession."

"Magic is not a word I would like to be associated with," Sarah said. "I mean, with which I would like to be associated." All her anxieties flooded back; she would be talking in a south London accent next.

"Have no fear, Miss Brown. The Navy looks after its own, and I look after my people, especially those who have served faithfully. You have my personal guarantee of protection. My uncle is the Bishop of Bath and Wells, charming old chap who still has an eye for a well-turned ankle. He'll like you."

He turned on that annoying grin.

"I see," said Sarah. "So you were making fun of me when you asked all those embarrassing questions on my first night aboard."

"Well, perhaps just teasing you a little," said Fitzwilliam. "You looked so nervous that that I thought you needed distracting."

"You, obnoxious, arrogant . . . man!" Sarah said, unable to think of a worse name to call him. She tried to slap him, which was not easy in the cramped conditions and he caught her wrist without difficulty.

"Bad girl," he said. "Hitting your captain in a war zone could be construed as mutiny and I would have to shoot you."

She pulled her arm free angrily. A sharp insertion of pain reminded her that she was not entirely healed.

"Let's see where you are hurt," Fitzwilliam said, looking genuinely upset. "I'm sorry, I had quite forgot about your injury."

"You won't find a wound," Sarah said, mollified by his show of concern. "The damage was psychic. I feel much recovered already."

"Nevertheless, I think I should examine you," said Fitzwilliam.

His hands moved gently over her body, while he lay back and closed her eyes. His touch was comforting, more like caresses than a medical examination, so she relaxed. Actually, it was a lot like caresses.

"Captain Fitzwilliam," she said, eventually.

"Yes, Miss Brown."

"You wouldn't be the sort of cad who takes advantage of a helpless lady under your protection, would you?"

"I regret to say that I may well be just such a bounder, Miss Brown."

She opened her eyes and examined him. He was quite handsome in a rugged sort of way and he did have an engaging smile. He would have been safe if he had not come back to rescue her. Perhaps he deserved some compensation for the loss of his life. She considered her options and recalled that she really hated word games.

"Well, if I am to be ravished I suppose I must submit gracefully," she said, and kissed him.

It was some time before Sarah came up for air. When she did, she turned her head to look out of the porthole while he playfully nuzzled her neck.

"Captain Fitzwilliam," she said.

"What is it now, Miss Brown?" he asked, a faint edge of frustration colouring his tone.

She giggled wondering if he would see the funny side. The poor man was in for more frustration.

"I think you should look out," she said. "I believe you may have, um, missed the boat, so to speak."


Sarah pointed to where the American sloop headed straight for them, demonstrating the famous sailing qualities of the type by navigating easily through Lucifer's rip tides. Fitzwilliam clearly did not see the funny side.

"Bloody Americans," he said. "They've been a perpetual nuisance since Boston Harbour."

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